When a Swiss bank comes courting

When a Swiss bank comes courting

Most people don’t think of Israel as teeming with millionaires, but people in the know think differently

Bertrand Demole, Senior Partner at Bank Pictet (right) with Karen Shavek, manager of Pictet's Tel Aviv branch (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bertrand Demole, Senior Partner at Bank Pictet (right) with Karen Shavek, manager of Pictet's Tel Aviv branch (photo credit: Courtesy)

You know you’re doing well when Swiss bankers come calling to try to convince you to deposit your cash in their care. The same can be said for a country: With the arrival in Israel of Bank Pictet, one of the most Swiss of Swiss banks, it seems like the economy has finally made it.

To be sure, the Swiss bank business isn’t what it used to be. The offshore bank accounts that many people trusted the Swiss to keep secret from the IRS and other tax authorities are no more. After years of intense pressure, Swiss banks have started reporting to the US Treasury on Americans with accounts in their institutions, just in case the US citizen “forgot” to let the IRS know about the account.

Not that Pictet would encourage that kind of behavior, said Bertrand Demole, a senior partner at the bank. During a press conference announcing the opening of the Tel Aviv office of the 200-year-old bank (it was established in 1805), Demole said the bank followed all regulations in the countries where it operates (most of Europe, Hong Kong, several locations in North America, and now Israel). “We are registered with the SEC in the US and with the banking authorities in Israel. Many jurisdictions, like Israel, require that there be local representation for a foreign bank to do business in the country, and many customers are finding that local representation is easier, as it is more in the spirit of the anti-money laundering laws that have recently been legislated in many places.”

But looking to dodge the tax man is not the main reason you’d work with Bank Pictet, anyway; there are plenty of other such institutions in the still-surviving tax havens (some Caribbean islands, etc.) where you can make more money. The greatest asset Bank Pictet offers, Demole said, is safety. “We don’t grant loans and mortgages, we don’t invest in high-yield assets, and we don’t take chances with our clients’ money.” The only investments that the bank makes are in the highest of the high-rated short-term and long-term government bonds, especially Swiss government bonds such as those rated F1+ by Fitch, Prime-1 by Moody’s, double- and triple-A bonds rated by other agencies, and so on.

Not only that: The bank keeps multiples of its deposits in cash (or cash-ready assets, easily redeemed for money), so there is never any danger of going under. Individual clients get the undivided personal attention of their banker, who is likely to remain in charge of their clients’ accounts for decades (Demole pointed to several examples of clients whose children worked with the child of a Pictet personal banker, moving the banking relationship to the next generation).

It all sounds so “old money,” with fortunes derived in the distant past from timberland and railroads, handed down through the generations, with the heirs clipping coupons and sipping champagne. It’s a world very different from that of the hard-working nouveau-riche Israeli start-up entrepreneur. Is there really a potential match here?

Absolutely, said Demole. Today’s fortunes are being made in places like Israel, said Demole, and banks go where the money is. As far as Pictet is concerned, any customer looking for what the bank offers — primarily safety and security for their funds — is welcome. “We have an expression at the bank,” he said: “Entrepreneurs make new money, and we help them to keep it and make it old money.”

Pictet is very keen to make the acquaintance of eligible Israeli investors who, Demole says, are plentiful. The minimum amount needed to open an account is $1 million, but apparently there are more than enough potential depositors to make it worthwhile for Pictet to open a branch in Israel. “It’s an attractive, wealthy country, with plenty of potential for growth and a vibrant, creative economy,” said Demole. “Israel is definitely the right place for us to be.”

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